I so deeply enjoyed my dialog with Joanna Macy on Dec 6, 2012 entitled “the Work that Reconnects Us.” She is a singular figure, a creative pioneer in developing the deep inner work of soulful evolutionary activism. Her work contributed a great deal to the consciousness with which I framed the animating question of the Beyond Awakening series. And in this interview she showed up in a way that that was simultaneously joyful and sober, playful and serious (in the richest and deepest sense of that word).
Together we explored the implications (and applications) of the profound inner work she has developed based on her many decades as an inner and outer activist and as a scholar and teacher of systems theory, deep ecology, and engaged Buddhism.
Our dialog ranged widely, from the personal to the global, but was focused in an exploration of the Work That Reconnects, the work that developed out of Joanna’s decades of scholarship and activism to help people navigate the inner journey involved in “facing the mess we’re in without going crazy”.
She identifies 4 Stations in the spiral of the Work that Reconnects:
1. Opening to Gratitude
2. Honoring our Pain for the world
3. Seeing with New Eyes
4. Going Forth
I began our dialog by expressing my appreciation for the fact that she begins with gratitude, which is, I think, the foundation of sanity. Joanna responded by saying that she used to view gratitude as somewhat sentimental or even Pollyannaish and sweet. But she’s come to realize that within our consumerist culture, gratitude is actually a politically subversive act. “Because the engine that drives late capitalism is dissatisfaction and craving…it’s a revolutionary act to be thankful for what you are and what you have in this moment.”
Joanna says that the second station is another revolutionary act, one that defies a different cultural taboo—against knowing and honoring our pain. Our dominant culture lives out an unstated conspiracy of silence that enlists our complicity in the destruction of our planet and its chemistry, climate and life forms. We remain silent because having a sense of alarm, concern and grief for the world and each other is tacitly pathologized as depressive and antisocial—a private maladjustment. “There is a whole pharmacy closet with which we can address the feelings of despair and depression that come up…” Waking up, raising our voices and speaking the truth of our pain and the world’s pain is a profound and necessary slap in face. I added another observation—that the deepest part of this voyage is to break the taboo that’s internally structured into our own psyche and cross the river of our own denial.
Joanna was careful to point out that this is not a cathartic process, where we discharge our personal pain. Rather it is a process of recognizing our pain for what it is and sharing it with others, and simply being with it. Thus it is reframed as an expression of our capacity to suffer with our world. (To “suffer with” is the root meaning of the word “compassion”.)
A basic shift of identity takes place once we open to this suffering with the world; we begin “seeing with new eyes”. The separate, isolated self opens into widening circles of care. Even our identity expands as our interdependence becomes palpably obvious. Our experience becomes resonant and deep, expressing principles of general systems theory, deep ecology, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions. As Joanna explained “suddenly the doors of the separate ego swing open and like interstitial tissue connecting us to each other we walk out into shared experience.” I suggested that a new kind of intimacy opens up with this new seeing, an implication upon which Joanna expanded.
Seeing with new eyes, it becomes possible to go forth as love, expressing our compassion, and doing what we can to serve others and heal the world. We look at own lives and communities and workplaces and opportunities and relations and get a clearer picture of what it is that we are most moved to do. Here we witness the emergence of our Bodhjisattva and the marrow-deep knowledge that if we are going to wake up, we are going to have to wake up together.
Private salvation is a myth, an especially outdated myth in terms of our current global crises. Joanna put out a provocative challenge, asking “what does it matter what schools of spirituality you have practiced… if you watch the earth be despoiled for all generations to come?” To those focusing solely on personal enlightenment, she says “your spiritual practice is cheap.”
I pointed out the fractal nature of the Work that Reconnects. We can view it from 50,000 ft., writ large in the macro journey of humanity, and in our personal lifetimes of learning. It also expresses itself in the midranges, in the rites of human passage that unfold over weeks, or months or years. It can sometimes be traversed in an afternoon, or just a few minutes. The fractal quality is also apparent in our caring which is the earth caring through us, and our thinking which is the earth thinking though us.
At the end of our conversation, we had a special treat when the wonderfully insightful interpersonal neurobiologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Siegel, a past guest on Beyond Awakening, called in and helped us explore some of the implications of this deep conversation. I invite you to listen to the full dialog here.